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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) 258 p.

It’s been quite some time since I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful Never Let Me Go, a dystopian sci-fi novel about an unusual group of children, a deceptively simple and readable book which nonetheless carries a great weight of subtext. The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s slightly more famous novel, winner of the 1989 Booker Prize, concerning the life of traditional English butler Mr. Stevens (no first name, naturally) at the grand country manor of Darlington Hall.

The novel is told from Stevens’ first-person perspective, and it soon becomes apparent that he’s going to be something of an unwittingly unreliable narrator. He is the very model of a classic English gentleman, crisp and courteous and reserved, and also the pinnacle of what a butler should be. It’s increasingly sad to realise, as one reads on, that Stevens really does want nothing more in the world than to serve his master faithfully and accomplish the highest standards of his profession. Or does he?

It’s fascinating to watch Ishiguro craft Stevens’ voice so carefully that by the end of the novel, we realise that our narrator has, at least on some level, been lying to himself – but we’re not sure if he realises. There’s a particularly great extended scene, the crux of Stevens’ career, when Lord Darlington is hosting an informal international conference to discuss the situation in Weimar Germany, while Stevens’ father – once an enormously reputable butler, now an ailing old man with reduced duties – is dying in his bedroom upstairs. When informed of his father’s sudden death in the midst of the evening, Stevens nonetheless carries on with his duties, giving the reader nothing to suggest he has any kind of emotional core until one of the guests remarks: “I say, Stevens, are you crying?” Which, naturally, the butler chalks up to the stress of the day. When he reflects on that evening later on, he feels nothing but immense professional satisfaction at how he overrode his own emotions in order to carry out his service to his master. Something which we as readers find deeply tragic is, for Stevens, a point of pride. His deception of himself is utterly merciless.

Most of the novel is concerned with his relationship with the head housekeeper, Miss Kenton, and the undercurrent of romantic tension which is ruthlessly quashed by their rigid professional circumstances and Stevens’ own inevitable refusal to acknowledge it, despite Miss Kenton’s repeated pushes. He is tragically unable to contemplate any kind of life beyond his own blind loyalty to his master – a man whom, we later find out, is a Nazi sympathiser, something Stevens pointedly refuses to accept. The novel is framed by a narrative in which Stevens – many years later, in the 1950s, Lord Darlington deceased – is undertaking a roadtrip to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton again; purely for professional reasons, he assures us, to see if she wishes to take up her post at Darlington Hall once more, because of course he is incapable of imagining any other respectable reason to reintroduce her into his life.

When I first read Never Let Me Go I was probably too inexperienced to properly appreciate it; I was frustrated that despite the narrator’s access to vehicles and money, it didn’t even occur to her to try to escape the ghastly fate society had laid out for her and her kind. But of course that was the point: an allegory about the many ways in which society convinces us, slowly but surely, to become things we don’t really want to be. Ishiguro uses an extreme sci-fi version of this, but how many of us actually want to be, say, minimum-wage retail slaves? The Remains of the Day runs along the same theme, the only crucial difference being that it condemns not society, but the individual: the role we play in our own indoctrination, the things we tell ourselves we want, the cages we build around our own lives.

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June 2015